What to know when looking for studio collaborators.
Producers can play many roles for artists, including recording mentor, performance partner, and songwriting guide. Finding the right studio collaborator isn't always easy, however, since every creative has a different musical style and approach, as well as different resources at their disposal.
If you're signed to a label, your agreement may include the backing of a team—potentially with a manager, an A&R representative, and a publishing company, among others—that can facilitate producer introductions. And while this makes connecting easier, you should still be proactive about forging potential relationships, says Ashley Calhoun, VP of A&R at Pulse Music Group, a Los Angeles-based publisher, management, and services company.
"Reach out to your publisher, and make sure they understand what you're trying to accomplish and are on the same page [as you], and ask who they have for you to work with," she says.
Where to look and what to look for
If you're unsigned, you may need to work harder to secure these kinds of connections—and it's likely you won't be able to work with the biggest producers right away. But don't be afraid to lean into some internet research and get in touch with your dream collaborator anyway.
"Maybe you can't get in with the big-name producer that is your top goal producer if you don't have a budget or a team or anything yet," Calhoun says. "But maybe that producer has someone under them that they're mentoring, or someone signed to them that you could also work with—and that could get your foot in the door to work with that other producer."
Dylan Baldi, the vocalist/guitarist/songwriter of indie-punk band Cloud Nothings, suggests that looking for producers closer to home is another great option for artists just getting started. "Listen to music that your friends or people in your local music scene have made, and then figure out who recorded those albums and which ones sound good to you," he says. "Every local music scene has at least one 'recording guy' that you can get in touch with and end up making an album with."
Calhoun echoes this sentiment, noting that she recommends unsigned artists seek out studio collaborators that offer a simpatico aesthetic or sound. "If you're an artist and you know what your vision is, and what your sound is and where you're trying to go, I would just do your research, do your due diligence, figure out who inspires you—not who you're trying to sound like, but whose sounds you like and will be comparable with your sound and what you're trying to accomplish," she says. "Research who those people are and reach out to them."
Follow your ears and your network
For the Japanese post-rock band MONO, following this process led to a long-term recording relationship with engineer Steve Albini. More specifically, after guitarist Taka Goto heard previous albums on which Albini worked, he immediately knew the band needed to record at the engineer's Chicago studio, Electrical Audio.
"I've asked Steve a question just one time," Goto says. "I asked, 'Which booth did you use to record the drums of Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire and Neurosis' Times of Grace?' Because I wanted both the special feeling of air with unusual tension you get from Low’s quiet parts, and the room sound from Neurosis’ loud band parts."
MONO have worked with Albini on multiple albums, starting with 2004's Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined on through 2019's Nowhere Now Here. "We generally hate overproducing," Goto says. "We’re a band that like to play all together live, and do live recording on an analog tape. Steve is a genius who can record the perfect, strong—like piercing the bone—and beautiful sound, and mix. He never misses a single thing that the band would want or need."
Baldi's Cloud Nothings also worked with Albini, on 2012's Attack On Memory. But the band have since moved on and enlisted different producers—including John Congleton, John Goodmanson, and Randall Dunn—for subsequent studio albums.
These collaborations all came about because of suggestions from Baldi's musical network, he says. "I've always just trusted the opinions of the people that work with us and have gotten to know us pretty well over the years," he says. "My own style of songwriting doesn't change massively from album to album, so I've always felt like it was important to have a different producer on each record so they all have a different energy and ambience to them.
"It's just important to have a dialog going with people in your music circle so you end up working with someone you get along with and have something in common with—rather than choosing a big expensive producer based solely on name recognition," Baldi adds.
Don't forget chemistry
Of course, a successful studio working relationship goes much deeper than just jelling on a sonic level. You should also strive to work with producers you mesh with on a personality level. "If I have a very timid, shy artist, I'm probably not going to put them in with a very timid, shy producer, because the session will be awkward," Calhoun says. "Or if I have an artist that has very strong beliefs in a certain area, and someone who I know might be a little reckless or speak recklessly in the studio, I wouldn't want to put those people together. If there's a bad vibe in the studio, you're not going to get the results you want."
Luckily, you can suss out the potential for a smooth studio relationship with a producer by asking the right questions in advance. Calhoun recommends that you talk business up front—starting with hammering out whether you can even afford to work with a specific collaborator—and also have a conversation with producers about their process.
Some people—like her management client, Rahki, who has produced songs for Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Mac Miller, and Syd—like to start from scratch with an artist and build up songs in the studio. Other producers, however, like to start with rough sketches and work cooperatively with musicians during sessions—and some even prefer to work with finished tracks. "They don't really want to do anything additional in the studio except for just be the vibe, maybe help guide the session," Calhoun explains.
Baldi finds it useful to ask Cloud Nothings' potential production collaborators if they've listened to the band, or caught them live. "It seems like a way easier process when they have some idea of what you sound like and what you are going for before you get into the studio with them," he says. However, he also adds that old-fashioned word-of-mouth opinions can go a long way toward helping artists make decisions about collaborating.
"Ask around with people who have worked with the producer, and see if there are any horror stories," Baldi says. "It's on you to decide if the source of the story is trustworthy or not—but I feel like that's always the big red flag that would stop me from wanting to work with someone." Adds Calhoun: "It doesn't take long for one nasty thing to travel. So if you hear something, do your due diligence, look into it, research it for yourself—but things probably aren't circulating for no reason with nothing backing it up."
Of course, no matter how much advance preparation or research an artist does, there's never any guarantee that a producer relationship is going to be fruitful or successful. However, Calhoun adds that trusting your instincts—for example, if something on the business side seems off or the studio vibe just isn't happening—is never a bad thing. "If something feels wrong, it probably is," she says.
The trick is finding a production collaborator on your wavelength, one who has your best interests at heart, Calhoun adds. "You really want to surround herself with people who see the vision, and who can add value and really believe in you and be a champion for you."